Category Archives: Books & Films

The Interview: A Review (Updated)

Does The Interview trivialize the suffering of North Koreans?  I’m not sure what you had a right to expect from the likes of Seth Rogen and James Franco, but I’d say it did so less than I expected. A central theme of the film’s climactic scene — Franco’s interview with Kim Jong Un — was hunger, and the contrast between Kim’s obscene wealth and the squalor of his people.

Was The Interview a good parody of North Korea? It was a good enough parody of Pyongyang as the AP shows it, if you believe that that’s North Korea. I agree with Barbara Demick that the film gets quite a few things right. It also gets some things wrong, by understating the percentage of the population that lives hand-to-mouth, and by overstating current estimates of the prison camp population.

That is to say, I do not advise you to cite The Interview as a reference in your Ph.D. dissertation.

On one level, The Interview holds up well, and even borders on brilliance — as a parody of the Americans who go to North Korea, what they’re willing to overlook, and the ethical compromises they’re willing to make. When Franco asks his minder about starvation, she drives him to a store fully stocked with (plastic) food, with a fat kid posted on the sidewalk in front, casually licking a lollipop.

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If N. Korea hacked Sony and threatened us, here’s how we should respond

The New York Times, quoting “[s]enior administration officials,” is reporting that “American officials have concluded that North Korea ordered the attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers.”

Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism attack. Sony capitulated after the hackers threatened additional attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie, “The Interview,” was released. [N.Y. Times]

The Times report doesn’t say whether the feds also think North Korea was behind the threats that caused Sony to pull The Interview from theaters, but North Korea certainly is profiting from the perception that it was responsible for them. Today, another studio made the cowardly decision to kill a Steve Carell film that would have been set in North Korea.

Nor would this be the first time North Korea has used terrorism to censor The Interview. It has already used its kidnappings of Japanese citizens to censor the film’s closing scene:

Japan, where Sony is an iconic corporate name, has argued that a public accusation could interfere with delicate diplomatic negotiations for the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped years ago.

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Suki Kim responds to critics of her decision to go undercover

It’s ironic to read how the people at PUST–who’ve suppressed their religious, political, and moral beliefs to accommodate and assist the world’s most oppressive regime, and also, to suppress the truth about it–have challenged Suki Kim’s ethical decisions. But some of those criticisms might be more valid coming from other sources, so Kim addresses them on her web site. I can’t disagree with Kim’s justification that overt journalism has failed us.

There is a long tradition of “undercover” journalism—pretending to be something one is not in order to be accepted by a community and uncover truths that would otherwise remain hidden. In some cases, this is the only way to gain access to a place. North Korea, described only recently by the BBC as “one of the world’s most secretive societies,” is such a place. [….]

I did not break any promises. I applied to work at PUST under my real name. I was not asked to sign and did not sign any kind of confidentiality agreement, nor did I ever promise not to write about PUST.

Meanwhile, in the six decades since Korea was divided, millions have died from persecution and hunger.  Today’s North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation, keeping its people hostage under the Great Leader’s maniacal and barbaric control, depriving them of the very last bit of humanity.

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Suki Kim will be on The Daily Show tonight

More on that here. In a separate interview, Ms. Kim says that “North Koreans are so oblivious of the outside world that even some children of elite families believe that Korean is spoken in the rest of the world.”

“They, first of all, didn’t know anything about the rest of the world. If any of them did, they were fearful to admit that,” Kim said. “Some of the students really thought people spoke Korean in the rest of the world. So the utter, utter lack of information was astounding.” [….]

She said the students, many of them majoring in computer science, did not know of the existence of the Internet.

Kim said she was shocked to see how isolated the North Korean people are from the outside world, how much their lives are controlled by authorities, and how strong a personality cult surrounded the ruling family of then leader Kim Jong-il.

“It’s religious, really. Absolute belief in the great leader, where, you know, this generation — three generations of these men who, these hugely narcissistic men, basically wiped everything out of their culture except themselves. [Yonhap]

Which, frankly, I found surprising, given the amount and extent of subversive information, foreign DVDs, and samizdat literature said to be circulating there, even among the very same demographic:

A series of books considered “subversive” in North Korea have recently been circulating in black markets, with people renting them out at a fixed price, the Daily NK has learned.

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N. Korea: We didn’t hack Sony, but we’re glad someone did

As suspicions grow that North Korea was indeed responsible for the Sony hack, North Korea offers that oddly unconvincing denial. If the North Koreans really did do it, some commenters think the U.S. will have to respond:

Aitel says the hacks are potentially “a ‘near red-line moment'” because they represent the kind of incident that would almost require a US policy response assuming a rival state was behind it. As Aitel says, “This is the first demonstration of what the military would call Destructive Computer Network Attack (CNA) against a US Corporation on US soil … a broad escalation in cyberwarfare tactics” that would demand some kind of American response. [Business Insider]

Personally, I’d have thought that the 2009 incident when North Korea (or its sympathizers) was suspected of hacking “27 American and South Korean government agencies and commercial Web sites” would have crossed a red line. I’d be interested in knowing what evidence linked those attacks to North Korea, but targets of cyberattacks often avoid publicizing the fact that they were attacked.

Mandiant’s extensive report on China’s state-sponsored hacking was an exception to that rule. Maybe Mandiant should write a second report on North Korea, and especially about what support the North Korean hackers receive from China.

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PUST’s un-Christian attacks on Suki Kim

Ms. Kim’s recollections about PUST and North Korea have obvious public interest value for citizens and policymakers, but it’s hard to believe she told us much that an astute observer wouldn’t have guessed anyway. I think the most valuable thing Suki Kim may have taught us is how invested those who “engage” Pyongyang become in imposing a code of omerta to conceal the truth from us, regardless of the ethical cost.

But the author, Suki Kim, may have provoked even more anger among the university’s Christian educators. They have denounced Ms. Kim for breaking a promise not to write anything about her experiences and said her memoir contains inaccuracies, notably her portrayal of them as missionaries, which could cause them trouble with the North Korean authorities. [….]

Dr. Kim sent her what she described as a series of angry and distressed emails when he found out about her plans to publish the book. At least two of her former fellow teachers also wrote, imploring her to scrap the idea.

In a telephone interview from China, Dr. Kim sought to rebut the entire book.

“I am really upset about the attitude, her writings, her telling lies, her cheating us,” he said.

He was especially critical of what he called the erroneous assertion that the other teachers were missionaries.

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Sony Pictures should go after North Korean hackers’ Chinese enablers

Since the weekend, several of you have e-mailed me about “suspicions” — and really, I don’t think they went further than that — that North Korea may have hacked Sony Pictures and leaked unreleased movies to file sharers to punish it for “The Interview.” Those rumors were covered by many outlets, but frankly, the open-source evidence for North Korea’s complicity was little more than speculation, at least until I read this today:

Hackers who knocked Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer systems offline last week used tools very similar to those used last year to attack South Korean television stations and ATMs, people briefed on the investigation said.

The similarity would reinforce a hunch among some investigators, which include Sony, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a team from Silicon Valley security company FireEye Inc., that North Korea played a role in the breach at the film and television studio, one of the largest in the U.S. South Korea publicly blamed the 2013 attacks on North Korea. [….]

Sony Pictures is set to release this month “The Interview,” a comedy in which U.S. spies enlist a television host played by James Franco and his producer, played by Seth Rogen, to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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Sue Terry’s review of Chris Hill’s book was much too kind

Terry’s review isn’t what I’d call favorable, and Terry is a much kinder soul than I am, but it seems too kind to call Hill “one of the most successful diplomats of his generation.”

Sure, Hill was one of his generation’s most successful careerists, but as a diplomat, he may have been the greatest human wrecking ball in modern American diplomacy.

What I’m really waiting for is a critical appraisal of Hill’s IKEA writing style.

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4th Annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival

4th NHIFF banner

NKnet is hosting its 4th annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival this coming Friday and Saturday, September 26-27, in Gwanghwamun, Seoul.

This year there are 14 films from Korea, the US, and Saudi Arabia, and two of the films received financial support from the festival:

poster: November 9th
November 9th
100 min. – Korea – documentary – no English subtitles
Directed by: Kim Gyu-Min (the director of Winter Butterfly, which played at the first NHIFF in 2011)
Category: Reunification of the Korean Peninsula
*Following the film, there will be a conversation with the director, who is originally from North Korea (interpretation not available).

Synopsis:

10 hours from now, the ceasefire line will collapse and the Korean peninsula will be reunified.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall – symbolizing the division of Germany – fell. It wasn’t through an agreement of the East and West German governments that it happened on that day. Nor were East or West German academics or anyone else from around the world for that matter able to foresee the wall would come down on November 9, 1989. A year later Germany was reunified for the first time in 41 years through the votes of the East and West German citizenry in free elections.

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Adam Johnson: “Everyone who deals with them eventually gets burned.”

Somewhere, the world’s smallest violin is playing a Samuel Barber adagio for Walter Keats, who whines, not about the North Koreans who shut down his tour business after he spent years coddling and enriching them, but about Adam Johnson for writing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel:

Between 2006 and 2012, Walter Keats led dozens of tours as president of Asia Pacific Travel. By 2012, after building trust with North Korean officials, Keats and his wife were permitted to lead groups year-round.

Then, without explanation, Keats and his wife were denied entry. He believes his blacklisting was punishment for organizing a tour for Adam Johnson, a professor of creative writing at Stanford University who was doing research for “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a novel set in North Korea that was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book contains an irreverent portrayal of the late leader Kim Jong Il, which may have upset the North Korean government.

“The way the [North Korean] system works, somebody has to get punished for any kind of transgression that takes place,” Keats said.

Johnson said he has no way of knowing whether his novel was the cause of Keats’ banishment. “I truly hope not. From my sense of it, everyone who deals with them eventually gets burned,” he said in an email.

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Tonight, on The John Batchelor Show, Bruce Bechtol will discuss North Korea’s …

terrorism, proliferation, and policy responses to both.

Bechtol, as you recall, testified as an expert in the Kaplan v. DPRK case that found North Korea liable for sponsoring the Hezbollah rocket attacks that injured the civilian plaintiffs. Judge Lamberth cited both Bechtol’s testimony and his book, The Last Days of Kim Jong Il, in his Memorandum Opinion.

The interview will air at 11:15 p.m. Eastern Time in Washington, and at other times in other areas, on this station. You can also listen to recorded broadcasts of the show here, which you should, for another good reason — Gordon Chang often co-hosts the show.

I don’t care for most talk radio, frankly, but Batchelor’s show is always intelligent, always has insightful guests, and never harangues. You may or may not agree with its perspective, in the same way that I don’t agree with NPR’s perspective, but still find its content redeeming. Batchelor’s show is NPR for conservatives, only without the government funding.

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I love watching North Korean refugees emerging as a cultural force …

to inform the world about life, such as it was, in their homeland. The South China Morning Post covers a North Korean human rights film festival in Hong Kong, and The Washington Post’s new Seoul correspondent, Anna Fifield, covers a young North Korean rapper who doesn’t quite share my taste in music, but does share my outlook about food distribution north of the no-smile line.

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First as tragedy, then as farce

The story I linked Monday about Michael Kirby’s comments spurring the U.N. to action in North Korea eventually grew into two posts, because in the same story, Kirby also warned against trivializing what’s happening in North Korea.

The Commission of Inquiry, which reported to the UN in March, detailed horrific abuses of human rights in North Korea, including starving political prisoners reduced to eating grass and rodents in secret gulags, schoolchildren made to watch firing squad executions, and women forced to drown their own babies to uphold racial purity laws.

Justice Kirby compared the actions of the North Korean regime to a modern-day Holocaust, and he warned against treating North Korea as a quirky, oddball regime.

“Please do not think North Korea is a cuddly, cute sort of a case, with a leader with a bad haircut who is nonetheless loveable and is going to go in the right direction because he’s a young man. This is not a situation where a young person is going to bring a new broom, if his is a new broom it is a violent new broom. Things have not improved.”

I suppose Justice Kirby was talking about films like “The Interview” and the Dennis Rodman parody “Diplomats,” neither of which I’ve seen.

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Please buy Don Kirk’s new book on Okinawa and Jeju

A few weeks ago, it was my pleasure to meet up with Don Kirk for beers at the Press Club. Don was kind enough to give me a copy of his new book. I’ve only had time to poke through it so far, but it does (as you would expect) a comprehensive job of discussing the politics of military basing on both islands, each with its own history of conflict and controversy.

Providence-20140112-00169

Don asked me to give it a plug, and I’m happy to oblige. Here’s the back cover blurb:

Providence-20140112-00166

For those in the Pentagon, or who are serving in that area with the armed forces, this is something you’ll definitely want to read. It’s awfully expensive in hard cover, so you may want to buy it for your kindle, or use the kindle app (which I liked very much).

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“Secret State of North Korea,” on PBS’s Frontline, Tuesday, January 14th

On Tuesday January 14th, PBS’s Frontline will air a one-hour program about the North Korea most foreign journalists aren’t allowed to see: Secret State of North Korea.

Not only are North Koreans illegally smuggling information from inside North Korea out, a growing cohort of defectors are risking their lives to get information about the outside world in.

“Pretty quickly, what surprised me the most wasn’t the poverty and poor conditions people live in—which are, undoubtedly, shocking,” says FRONTLINE director James Jones. “It was the ordinary North Koreans who were standing up to authority.”

And doing so at great risk to themselves. 

That web page includes a brief trailer. You may recognize the footage as the work of the guerrilla cameramen of Asia Press’s Rimjingang. The men who took these images risked their lives to show you what you will see on that program.

For those living in the Washington area, the program airs at 10 p.m. on WETA, channel 26. Here’s a link for a listing in other parts of the U.S.

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Upcoming Events: “The Defector” Screenings, and EAHR’s online round table

I’D PREVIOUSLY POSTED ABOUT two new documentaries about how the real North Korea — the one behind the facade — is changing. One of these, The Defector, will be screened this week at two separate events in Washington. If you’re in the area, I hope you can make it.

InsideNK_TheDefector.PremiereDCVA.Poster_UPDATED

I OWE AN APOLOGY to the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, which asked me to post about their online seminar on advocating for human rights in North Korea, and which I then completely forgot to do. Fortunately, their previous December 2nd event is on YouTube, and a second seminar is coming up next week.
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New documentaries show how N. Korea is changing, despite Kim Jong Un

Two new documentaries on North Korea are promising us brave and original journalism about life in North Korea, as the vast majority of North Koreans somehow live it.

A long-time reader writes to tell me that the Heritage Foundation will be screening a new documentary, “The Defector,” on December 5th, at 5:30 p.m., and that Shin Dong Hyok will be in attendance. Here is how the film’s website describes it:

Dragon is a human smuggler who leads North Korean defectors across borders for a living. His latest undercover trip with Sook-Ja and Yong-hee takes an unexpected turn when they are left stranded in China, putting their dramatic escape plan into question. Their perilous journey reflects the reality of tens of thousands of North Koreans currently in hiding in China. Filmed undercover by a Korean-Canadian filmmaker, Ann Shin gets intimate access with these three individuals in this POV film and explores universal questions about human rights, smuggling and the pursuit of freedom.

The film’s producer is Korean-Canadian Ann Shin, who profiles the film and adds a trailer at this New York Times blog. You can see more here, and a Yahoo News report here. The previews suggest that human traffickers are stepping in to fill the void created by a system of international law that has broken down in the face of China’s intransigence.

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Review: Treasury’s War, by Juan Zarate

Let me begin with an apology for the lack of posting lately. While tossing a football around with some friends, I took a direct head-on hit to that finger you need for typing words that contain the letters “l” or an “o,” which turn out to be less dispensable than you might think. The time I didn’t spend typing, I spent reading instead:

Treasury's War cover

[clicking the image takes you to Amazon]

If you want to understand why the Banco Delta Asia action worked so well, how financial sanctions bankrupted al Qaeda, and how they’re bankrupting Iran today, you have to read this book. If you’re reading this site, however, the odds are you’re interested in what Zarate has to say in chapters 9 and 10, where he writes about North Korea, Banco Delta Asia, and Chris Hill.

Zarate, who is usually effusive in his praise for the people he worked with in government, clearly has no use for Hill. Hill comes off looking like a boorish, incompetent asshole who, despite repeated explanations of how Section 311 worked, either didn’t grasp the concept or didn’t care. According to Zarate, Hill’s minions reduced Daniel Glaser to tears by bullying him into simply switching off the section 311 action–and its downstream effects–almost instantly, which is a lot like asking Treasury to instantly give North Korea a new reputation for honest financial dealings with a banking “ecosystem” that’s extremely concerned about reputations and access to correspondent accounts in U.S.

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